The state inspector general has warned Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua that he is on shaky legal ground in continuing to pay police officers who are off the job and under criminal indictment.
“These actions disregard the financial safeguards contained in (state law) which are in place to curtail wasteful spending on city employees (police officers and civilians) who are under indictment for crimes allegedly committed against the very same taxpayers who pay the salaries of these employees,” Inspector General Glenn Cunha wrote to Lantigua on Jan. 15. The Eagle-Tribune obtained a copy of the warning letter through a public records request to Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
Warnings are all well and good. But without the threat of action, they are meaningless.
An impudent child who constantly receives threats of punishment from his parents but no actual discipline soon learns that there are no consequences to his actions. Likewise, Lantigua, who for two years now has been under grand jury investigation into allegations of corruption, bid rigging, suspicious out-of-state travel, illegal car swaps, campaign finance violations as well as shipments of vehicles to the Dominican Republic, must be feeling increasingly invincible and growing convinced that the law is toothless.
And speaking of toothless, there’s the curious incident of the fiscal watchdog in the night, who, like the similarly described dog in the Sherlock Holmes story, was silent while mischief was afoot. Lawrence is supposedly enjoying the protection of a state-appointed financial overseer, Robert Nunes. Several hundred thousand dollars a year are being paid to these employees for no work, yet Nunes insists he has no authority over personnel matters.
Is there no one willing to act to protect the interests of the taxpayers supporting Lawrence?
Cunha’s letter to Lantigua cites the payments to Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, who earns $140,000 annually, and patrol Officer Pedro J. Lopez, who makes $60,000 per year. Both are still being paid although they were both indicted on criminal charges in September.
Officer Carlos Gonzalez, who is in a Florida jail awaiting trial on a child rape charge, is still being paid his $60,000 annual salary. Gonzalez has been on paid administrative leave since December.
Previously, police Officer Daron Fraser was on paid leave for 29 months, earning $150,000 and continuing to accrue sick and vacation time and retirement benefits. Lantigua allowed Fraser to return to work in January although he can’t carry a firearm because he was convicted of domestic assault and battery.
Cunha tells Lantigua in his letter that there is state law giving him the “discretion” and “requires” a public employee “under indictment for misconduct in ... office” to have their pay halted while suspended.
“However, you chose to place these indicted officers on paid administrative leave rather than suspending them without pay pursuant to your statutory authority. Choosing to designate this as administrative leave rather than suspension resulted in the continuation of pay and benefits for these officers while they are under indictment,” Cunha wrote.
Cunha notes that Lantigua’s actions run counter to Police Department history, as other Lawrence police officers who faced criminal indictment were put on “unpaid suspension as authorized” by law.
Cunha said continuing to pay Bonilla and Lopez “differently than similarly-situated officers creates the appearance of favoritism.”
“Such favoritism would constitute an abuse of public funds,” Cunha wrote.
Further, the payments to the officers on leave places a financial burden of nearly $260,000 a year, including accrued benefits, on a cash-strapped department, Cunha wrote.
Indeed, Lantigua’s decision to continue to reward his political allies, even as they are under indictment, places a severe burden on the city both financially and ethically.
But it is equally clear that Lantigua will not act on his own to stop it.